Controversial architect Sir Richard Rogers tells Elaine Williams how childrencan learn to influence the cityscape.
Toy wooden trains and track were laid out across the floor of the sparsely furnished room in London's Albert Hall Mansions, a touching sign of domesticity in this temporary home of the architect Sir Richard Rogers.
"I can see what you're going to write now", he laughed, "that this is what I use to do my planning". The son of Italian parents, Richard Rogers combines an inward Italianate love for family - he has five children whom he talks about with pride and affection - with an outward respect for civic responsibility.
Away from his Chelsea house which is being refurbished, Rogers had found stimulation from his Kensington Gore address with its close-up view of the Albert Hall: "I look out of my window and think about the advantages and disadvantages of the Albert Hall. What was achieved by it? How could the aesthetic be improved? If I think about the immediate community around me, there is one of the world's greatest parks (Hyde Park) across the road; the Albert Hall; the Royal College of Art; three of the world's greatest museums (Natural History; Science; the Victoria and Albert) all in a single block. That's about vision and foresight."
Architecture is the art form to which we are continuously exposed and yet, he laments, it is hardly present in the school curriculum. "In the end we are throwing away one of our greatest resources. It's all around us. It affects us every time we step out of our front door."
Schools, he believes, must broaden out: "It's ridiculous that at 15 children are saying 'What three subjects can I do?' Shall I drop history, politics, health? That is ridiculous. A piece of advice I give my children is to try not to specialise at least until they are 25. Schools are failing to meet the needs of society."
Despite his dyslexia, Rogers himself has an acute spatial awareness which he feels education denies young people. Behind his smooth, urbane allure there lies a real passion for the possibilities for good that architecture can create. If people have been alienated by cheap, bastardised forms of modernism, from the residential to the office block, then they need to be educated beyond this, to a critical knowledge that will foster real public participation in architectural debate. "Education must take a necessary first step towards the participation of communities towards decision-making. Teaching children about biology and history, but not about their actual environment - the built one - leaves them ill-equipped to participate in the process of respecting and improving the city that so critically affects their lives".
His own buildings, notably the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyd's building in London, have attracted praise and disparagement in equal measure. He is the unrepentant modernist that fogeys love to hate. But underpinning his designs, from cityscapes to the European Court of Human Rights is the desire to give public pleasure and to enhance civic enjoyment. In his Reith lectures earlier this year, he said: "Face-to-face contact, the chance encounter, proximity, these have been the essential components of humanity. Cities respond to this need." Driven by this vision his practice proposed a new London riverside park from Parliament to Blackfriars on the north side of the Thames that would involve rerouting roads that cut people off from the waterfront, consolidating the existing gardens. Winner of the competition for the London South Bank Arts Centre, his practice has been looking at proposals for an open-air structure of crystal canopies, enclosing terraces and spaces between the Hayward Gallery and Festival Hall, increasing and controlling the temperature of these public walkways and places, bringing life back into "this rich combination of river, landscape culture and heritage".
Rogers remains an optimist. While many despair of city life, its pollution, its social dilemmas, its downright ugliness in parts - and for this many would blame the modernist movement that he yet champions - he believes that the city, if managed for the public good rather than private gain, can still redeem us. Cities may be the world's greatest polluters - he acknowledges that at least one in seven of Britain's city children suffer from asthma and that a city like Tokyo dumps an estimated 20 million tonnes of waste every year, saturating its bay - but spirited democrat that he is, he believes that if citizens can become more critically aware of their built environment they will be able to participate in the management of cities in a new way. He believes that such critical knowledge, achieved through education, could become a transforming force. "Education is surely about the old idea of citizenship - preparing us for responsibility in and for society - to leave the place better when we die than when we found it."
Rogers is a master of the grand gesture, of the sweeping statement, though in conversation he rarely concludes sentences, leaving much to be assumed. He charms with his good intentions though critics regard these as positively harmful once they get past the planning stage.
What's the point, suggested one, of building public piazzas and thoroughfares when city councils cannot afford to keep them clean and free of crime? They become menacing, not civic, places. Rogers is impatient with these views. Sharing public space forces us to acknowledge what we have in common: public life fosters tolerance and community and pleasure. It is no accident, he has stated previously, that under Nazi and Fascist regimes the city was segregated.
He thanks the likes of Prince Charles for putting architectural issues on the public agenda but could never accept that all virtue resides in late 18th century neo-classicism. Cities, and the buildings and spaces that make them up, have to be dynamic, they have to look forward and create new images for their time. "Vision is the critical word", he says. "If we really believe that cities can both brutalise and humanise, then we have to have vision."
In Italy, Spain and the US, architectural studies is part of a liberal education. In France, Mitterrand estimated that culture - and first of all architecture - was the fourth highest voting issue. In Britain, the prevailing disillusionment with contemporary architecture has sidelined it into a subject the population largely ignores - at our peril, according to Rogers. Most pupils go through their school years hardly looking at the buildings around them and are rarely taught why buildings are as they are. The environment has gained a toe-hold in schools as a cross-curriculum subject, but the built environment is hardly included in that, even though, as Rogers believes, "the art of city building has never been so crucial to our future." It's almost as if there were a deliberate campaign to keep architecture out of schools.
He believes this accounts for the general paucity of Britain's contemporary architecture and for the fact that some of the most exciting British architects, such as Norman Foster, have to operate elsewhere.
As well as being vice-chairman of the Arts Council, former chairman of the Board of the Tate Gallery, a knight, a member of the Legion of Honour in France and chairman of one of world's most successful architectural practices, Rogers has also taken on chairmanship of the National Tenants Resource Centre and in particular has become involved with residents of the Broadwater Farm Estate in London, scene of notorious riots and the murder of a policeman. "There are," he says, "brilliant leaders in this community as in every community. we have to bring them out and get them to take part in improving their environment. No buildings are all bad. They all have a certain role to play. But we have to know how to look after them. This goes back to education."
Children, he believes, should be introduced at school to the issues raised by buildings and cities in which they live. Sustainability should be at the heart of many of the core subjects, a linking theme between biology, history, geography, art and technology.
In the absence of any Government initiative, Rogers took up the chairmanship of the Building Experiences Trust, whose workshop programmes, taking young architects into schools as "animateurs", aims to get children switched on to buildings. In a morning or afternoon session animateurs help pupils to build rapidly huge catalytic constructions out of dowelling and elastic bands, stimulating their spatial awareness, encouraging them to grapple with three-dimensional form, making them think about the way buildings affects their lives.
So far this programme has worked with 90,000 pupils and 6,000 teachers across the country and the Trust has recently launched a campaign to co-ordinate Built Environment Education in schools. Calling on the support of the Arts Council, the Design Council, the Engineering Council and other bodies such as the Design Dimension Trust and the Learning Through Landscapes Trust, its task is to encourage teachers to generate exemplary Built Environment Education projects for their pupils. It runs a series of in-service courses for teachers and is seeking to spur regional arts boards and education authorities into exploring built environment education within the visual arts.
The Trust intends to train and support volunteers in all regions, and has been successful in stimulating university departments to field undergraduates in residencies to support teachers, Moreover, Mark Fisher, Labour's arts spokesman, who wrote A Vision for London in partnership with Rogers, has commissioned the Trust to write a consultative paper on the built environment and education for the Labour Party.
Although Rogers gave up his chairmanship of BET to fulfil his commitment to the Arts Council, he is still a trustee and supports its initiatives. Teachers, he believes, have to be given the confidence to talk about buildings critically, rather than degenerating into superficial debates about style.
"Cities with high density low rise or low density high rise can each be successful. Young people can be very responsive on issues and you can encourage them by tapping into their interests - they are very interested in the future of sports stadia, for example, you can use that. Teachers tend to respond differently, aligning themselves to one side of the argument raised by Prince Charles, or the other. We have to go beyond that.
"I don't want architecture to be simply the study of great buildings, what's at stake is not whether it's an examination course, but whether it's an issue within education. It is more than a list of building styles; it is but a complex and compromised art"
Building Experiences Trust, contact BET, director Nigel Frost, 277 Chesterton Road, Cambridge C44 1BH.